A friend of mine, Aaron Duke, posed the following question on his Facebook wall:
“In the leather, kink, fetish, and BDSM community, we say we are ALL inclusive. Are we truly ALL inclusive or are we exclusive? What does being ALL inclusive look like? What effects has/will being ALL inclusive have on our community?”
Below is my answer that became so long that I decided to turn it into this post, but in truth my answer, long as it is, really only addresses the third and final question. But I think that’s the far more interesting question of the three. Once you read my reply, let me know your thoughts by adding a comment. This is a topic worthy of discussion.
(Note: A few days after this post was initially published my friend Patrick Mulcahey, whom I reference elsewhere in this post, offered a few comments and I incorporated them into a revised version that you’re reading now. But I take full responsibility for the content of this post.)
I am going to make some assumptions about what “inclusion” means in this instance, and I’m fully aware I am making those assumptions. If your view of inclusion is different, what I have to say may not apply.
I am someone who was around at what I consider the dawn of the strong push towards greater inclusion of diversity of genders, orientations, kink proclivities and sexuality expression styles. I was also part of that effort to a large extent. Like many things in life, the pendulum swung far in the direction of hyper-inclusion to counter the perceived and much denigrated exclusionary nature of some sectors of our sexual realm. But also as usually happens after such strong swings in one direction, I believe the pendulum is swinging back to somewhere in the middle between the former exclusionary extreme and the now receding hyper-inclusion. I also think that’s a good thing.
The initial work of the National Leather Association – International is what I consider the dawn of the modern era of more inclusion. With the best of intentions, NLA-I (I was part of that organization) and many subsequent efforts that followed made great strides in bridging the gaps between the various leather/BDSM/kink/fetish factions, gaps that were considered flaws by some rather than good qualities of the scene. To a great extent those efforts have succeeded, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. I think much emphasis has been placed on the “better” and only now are some realizing there is a “worse” component to the results as well. After all, nothing is perfect. Especially at its inception.
Our scene is by its very nature a sexual one. Yes, many believe it’s much more than that, and it most certainly can be and is in many cases. But at its core, it’s a sexuality-based thing. As such, for many in the scene, the usual social rules of inclusion and fairness simply do not always apply. Some examples might help to illustrate what I mean by this.
Before I cite those examples, I should preface what I have to say by stating that I am not your typical gay kinkster. I thrive pretty well amid men and women of various orientations, even in sexual environments. I also am deeply entrenched in the worlds of advocating and working for sexuality rights, relationship choice rights, effective and useful kink education, alternative sexuality research, and other things that the typical kinky gay man, or kinky person of any stripe, really doesn’t have all that much interest in, at least not to the extent I do.
So my own personal kink identity is not the norm. Therefore, I believe how I choose to identify and play as a kinky gay man differs considerably from how others not so entrenched in the above might choose to identify and play. So my observations and comments below are from what I have observed and discussed with countless people over the past many years.
One more thing. Those of us in the kink realm who organize events, attend and work on contests, regularly attend kink education sessions, and run the various groups and organizations are not representative of most kinksters. We tend to forget that. Ask the average mainstream BDSM/kink player how much they care about such things and you’ll likely get a rather lackluster level of enthusiasm. So I try to remember that my own identity and approaches are influenced in large part by being one of those people (I call them the scene’s inner sanctum, although I know it’s an imperfect term).
I will cover just four areas that I feel have been impacted by the inclusion movement, although there are clearly others: leather bars, play parties, conferences and events, and education.
There are a whole lot of reasons why leather bars have had challenging times in recent years. But one reason I hear many gay men (because let’s face it, leather bars are gay male phenomenons) say they no longer frequent leather bars is because they are now so inclusive. Many leathermen do not want non-leather people in their bars. Yet rights legislation combined with political correctness has forced virtually all American leather bars to allow entrance to anyone of legal age who wants to come in. When once upon a time a bar could enforce a dress code, it’s now considered illegal or intolerant to do so today. Yes, this might have some upsides, but the downside is that it has cast aside the men who preferred their leather bars to be, well, actual leather bars dripping with leather- and gear-clad men cruising in hardcore fashion among their own gay male kind. Those days are gone, never to return.
The sexual nature of the gay men’s leather bar has also been de-sexed to the lowest common denominator of what’s acceptable to any man or woman who might enter its door. Since no kinky bar of any note has succeeded in drawing a primarily heterosexual or lesbian crowd in large enough profitable numbers, pushing all those gay men aside has forced many such bars to close and made existence harder for those still around.
Are there other factors leading to the demise of many leather bars? Absolutely. The fact that men can no longer have sex in the bars is a huge reason why I believe leather bars are disappearing. Put kinky gay men together in a dark bar atmosphere without the restriction of liquor or health code laws or the presence of non-kinky, non-gay male people and the allure of the bar is likely to remain stronger. Of course the internet is blamed a lot, but I think the blame placed on it is far greater than in reality it has had. And, of course, there are simply other venues in which gay men can express their kinky selves outside of bars.
One more factor that pushes many kinky gay men out of the leather bars is fundraisers and what I’ll refer to as “microphone” events. Most kinky gay men want to go to a leather bar to do one of two things: socialize and cruise. That’s it. That’s why they’re there. Anything that gets in the way of that makes the experience less appealing. And there’s absolutely nothing sexy about someone on stage with a microphone hawking a fundraiser or a demo that tries to pass itself off as education. And AIDS fundraisers aside, I think the inclusion movement has encouraged the non-sexual, fundraiser-style event quite a bit.
Do we absolutely need leather bars? No. But many kinky gay men miss them terribly and for those bars still around they miss the highly sexual atmosphere they once embodied. Too much inclusion, along with laws and the more focused societal scrutiny of them due to the more open nature of kink, has taken away a lot of their sexiness and allure.
Once upon a time play parties were demarcated by the orientations of attendees. Gay men played among gay men. Lesbians played among lesbians. Heterosexuals played among heterosexuals. Bisexuals and queers occasionally played with their own kind, but typically simply made a choice of what atmosphere they wished to play in for that night.
Over the past couple of decades there has been a trend toward mixed play spaces. At the same time, there was a trend toward more open play parties with relatively little scrutiny about who could walk through the play space doors. For many, this has proven to be enjoyable. But for a whole lot of people it is not.
Again, our scene is a sexual one. As such, it’s the core sexual attractions and affinities that propel and underpin what it is we do at play parties. I believe it’s a fact that most gay men would rather play in the presence of only gay men, that most most lesbians would rather play in the presence of only lesbians, and that most heterosexuals would rather play in the presence of other heterosexuals. I think that’s totally natural. Some absolutely enjoy mixed places and I think that’s great. But I contend most kinksters do not.
Add to this mix that we’ve moved away from the past tradition of play parties being entirely invitation-only, or at least highly and carefully screened, and a situation has emerged where many play spaces cater to the common denominator of the masses, but aren’t particularly sexually exciting or enticing to most.
Also, the mixing of orientations in particular has led to a de-sexing of play spaces. And in this case I’m referring to the actual insertive and intimate activities of sex itself. I believe the “no sex” rules of many contemporary play spaces hurts our scene rather than helps it. It fosters for many a division between kink and intimacy and ultimately that can’t be good. For me and others who think like me (and I contend it’s most people), my sex and my kink are inextricably linked and to separate them makes the experience less than satisfying.
Luckily, at least among gay men, which is the world in which I run nowadays most of the time, I am seeing a resurgence in invitation-only play parties and parties at which sex is not only allowed, but encouraged.
Conferences and Gatherings
Here I have mixed feelings because I see the benefits of all types of kinksters coming together at various conferences and gatherings. In many instances these events are comprised of folks of all genders, orientations and walks of kinky life and I often find that wonderful and useful. However, it’s not always the case and it has some downsides.
One of the downsides is that they tend to lack acknowledgment that gay men, lesbians, heterosexuals, bisexuals and queers all identify and play somewhat differently. I’ve witnessed this time and again in mixed play settings and had countless conversations with people who cross the gender/orientation boundaries who concur. So what can happen when you mix everyone together is that the minority views, approaches and styles can be oppressed.
I think lesbians feel this oppression sometimes at mixed events, but not always in the same ways that gay men do. Because heterosexual sexuality has either tolerated or venerated women-on-women sexuality, lesbians might feel some oppression, but they also feel a level of acceptance greater than gay men do. Yes, this is absolutely changing, but it’s still there. Heterosexuals, typically the vast majority at mixed events, end up dominating the event in decision-making, event activities, education tracks, play party planning, socializing party design, and so on.
So what happens as a result is that heterosexuals get to be and play as they are while lesbians feel some oppression and gay men feel more. Queers and bisexuals are still, unfortunately, often in a no man’s land in terms of full acceptance. I think the retreat of many gay men from pansexual (mixed) clubs and organizations that’s been alluded to by others is a result of this sense by many gay men that much of their scene has been co-opted and they now at the same time have far less clout and influence than they’d like.
BDSM/kink education is essentially the teaching of our sexuality. I have my own views about how BDSM/kink education has gone off the rails that you can read here, here, here, and here (also read Patrick Mulcahey’s brilliant Leather Reign speech here), but I believe the rabid inclusion of everyone can impact how we educate people and learn about BDSM and kink, and sexuality generally.
Learning BDSM and kinky sexualities is best done with a hands-on approach. If it’s a technique, that technique is best learned not by watching, but by doing. If it’s an idea or informational topic best handled by discussion or facilitated discovery, such discussion or discovery is often best done when allowed to take place with those people that share the most common experiences and backgrounds. Mixing the various factions together can dampen some of that learning.
Most gay men do not want to explore their erotic selves in the presence of women or heterosexuals. I won’t speak directly for lesbians or heterosexuals, but based on the many conversations I’ve had with kinksters in those camps, many of them feel the same way. Perhaps this is why so much of our education has devolved (yes, word chosen intentionally) to a pervasive classroom-based instructional model where an instructor pushes out technique and wisdom to the listening and watching students sitting quietly in their chairs supposedly absorbing what’s being taught.
I think there is tremendous value in the learning experience being shared with those you feel most comfortable learning among. Excessive inclusion can, at times, reduce the learning experience to a common denominator of comfort that’s less than optimal for most.
A bit about how economics affects our scene.
The skyrocketing cost of real estate in cities like New York and San Francisco means that everything we do is more expensive to do: bar space; play party space; conference and gathering space, and education space. Parties that used to pay $250 rental for dungeon space, for example, suddenly have to pay $1250 or more for the same rental and this is a very strong incentive to let in anybody who comes to the door with the cash to enter.
Economics might be the most significant force in creating our kink conferences. They are based on the model of business conferences, but businesses operating for profit year-round can afford a little red ink if their conferences don’t break even. Whereas leather and kink conferences often rely for solvency on the success of the single annual event they produce. Hotel facilities are expensive to rent. So conferences must market themselves so as to appeal to the greatest possible number of kinksters, which typically means heterosexual and pansexual folks. That factor alone accounts for what I consider many of the most persistent and most frustrating aspects of leather/kink conferences. For example, the educational offerings (of which there are usually far too many in my opinion) that accompany every conference are almost never targeted at lesbians or gay men. They are conceived to have the broadest appeal and thus hyper-inclusion becomes the norm as a result.
So I don’t feel I can say things like I’ve said above unless I’m willing to put forth my ideas for solutions to the downside of inclusion. And again, I’m not saying inclusion is always bad. I just think the dramatic pendulum swing toward inclusion has, at times, lessened our collective BDSM and kink experience, not helped it.
Leather Bars – I’m not sure I have a good solution for this one. Laws on the books in most dense urban locales where leather bars exist means anyone can claim the right to enter any business establishment they want. Perhaps a private club model could be put in place that sidesteps such laws, but we’ve seen those legal veil arrangements pierced far too often to think this would really hold up over time. Highly creative bar owners might be able to make a go of leather bars (which we should probably name change to kink bars to keep up with the times), and I hope that’s the case.
Play Parties – I’d like to see a return to more invitation-only and highly screened play parties. I’d like to see the smaller at-home or small venue parties happen with greater frequency because I think most people inclined to play in groups play better in smaller rather than larger groups. And maybe small play parties with fixed invitation lists in affordable or at-home, private spaces would be more satisfying to everyone involved. I’d like to see some play party organizers, without shame or apology, declare that their play party is exclusively for specific genders, orientations, ages or kink proclivities, and also not apologize that it’s invitation-only or highly screened. The play will be hotter and more fulfilling for a larger number of attendees and I think such an approach would spark a bigger interest in such parties. There is still a place for the large, mixed and open play parties. I don’t see them going away. But perhaps we can foster more options for those who don’t find them appealing.
Conferences and Gatherings: I’d like to see organizers of conferences and gatherings declare their events specifically targeted to certain genders, orientations, ages or kink proclivities. There is still a place for the mixed events, but since the various factions share different experiences and have some different needs and wants, perhaps these non-inclusive events would benefit them in ways the mixed ones do not always. And for those bigger mixed conference style events, I’d like to see more deference to the various factions with targeted socializing, learning, networking and play opportunities created rather than a single set of offerings that is meant to appeal to everyone.
Education: Apart from my other concerns about how we do education today in the BDSM/kink world, I’d like to see many more learning opportunities created that specifically address the various sub-populations of the BDSM/kink world. Sure, many can still and perhaps should be mixed, but there is also value in learning among your own kind because of the shared values and experiences that group might embrace. Maybe their education tracks can target the needs of specific groups without apology and without needing to be “big.”
Some will interpret what I wrote above as advocating for the separation of the factions in the BDSM/kink world. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think there is tremendous benefit to having the various factions mingle, meet, gather, share and otherwise interact. I just think not all situations require or even benefit from the inclusion of everyone.
I look forward to you sharing your thoughts by adding a comment.